Chapter 1A Hinge Moment: Morbid Symptoms, Cascading Crises, and a Looming Paradigm Shift
...When you want to know how things really work, study them when they’re coming apart.
—William Gibson, Zero History
In 1930, while imprisoned by Mussolini’s fascist regime in Italy, the philosopher Antonio Gramsci wrote this in his prison notebooks: “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.”
The world he was writing about had just plunged into the Great Depression; the Far Right was on the rise in Europe, emboldened by Mussolini’s ascent in Italy; the Communist Party had taken a hard turn toward totalitarianism; and in Germany, a rabble-rouser named Adolf Hitler—who had been dismissed by intellectuals as a “pathetic dunderhead”—had made the Nazi Party a powerful new force in politics. Increasingly extreme political views, growing polarization, violence in the streets, and the decay of traditional institutions—these were among the “morbid symptoms” Gramsci saw developing in response to the social and economic inequalities that had multiplied in the wake of World War I and the Depression. People had grown increasingly disillusioned with their political representation, leading to a “crisis of authority”—a power vacuum that Mussolini would exploit, turning Italy into a police state and installing himself as dictator. Gramsci anticipated the dangers of this rising tide of fascism, but he also wanted to believe that, given time and political will, a post-interregnum future might one day be realized—a new era in which the morbid symptoms of hate and fear had been beaten back and a new, more progressive vision of society might begin to emerge.
There are distinct parallels between what Gramsci described in 1930 and our world today. 2020 was an annus horribilis—a dumpster fire of a year, a Twilight Zone marathon, as the pandemic raged uncontrolled across the globe. 2021 opened with the January 6 insurrection at the Capitol—a near-death experience for American democracy, which continues as the Republican Party doubles down on Donald Trump’s lies and contempt for the rule of law. And 2022 brought back nightmares from the twentieth century as Vladimir Putin launched a brutal, unprovoked war on Ukraine, which overnight turned a peaceful country in the middle of Europe in the twenty-first century into a hellscape of bombed-out buildings and dead and wounded civilians.
Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and Xi Jinping’s embrace of strongman tactics in China—as well as the two dictators’ burgeoning alliance—are reminders of the growing threat of authoritarianism around the world. Iranian authorities have implemented a brutal crackdown on protesters. In Afghanistan, the Taliban has banned university and secondary school education for women and girls. Increasingly autocratic leaders in countries like Hungary and Turkey have exploded democratic norms. And in Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu moved to overhaul the judiciary in ways that would boost the power of his far-right coalition and dangerously undermine democratic checks and balances.
Freedom declined around the world for the seventeenth consecutive year, a 2023 Freedom House report found, with a deterioration in political rights and civil liberties in thirty-five countries. The watchdog group also pointed out that authoritarian leaders “are actively collaborating with one another to spread new forms of repression and rebuff democratic pressure,” while longtime democracies are being threatened from within by “illiberal forces, including unscrupulous politicians willing to corrupt and shatter the very institutions that brought them to power.”
It’s a stark and chilling reversal of Francis Fukuyama’s naïve declaration in 1989 that the unraveling of the Soviet Union meant “the end of history” and the “universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.” By the third decade of the twenty-first century, the new zeitgeist-y phrase was “permacrisis”—chosen as “word of the year” by Collins Dictionary in 2022—meaning “an extended period of instability and insecurity, especially one resulting from a series of catastrophic events.”
In more and more countries, extreme ideas are surging into the mainstream. Far Right movements have gained new traction by weaponizing recent social dynamics, including (1) inequalities of income and opportunity that snowballed since the financial crash of 2008, stoking anger at experts and elites; (2) unease with the social, cultural, and demographic changes of recent decades, channeled by nihilistic leaders like Donald Trump into racist, misogynistic, and anti-LGBTQ+ bigotries; and (3) escalating resentment of globalism and European Union policies, which has led to a wave of growing nationalism and anti-immigrant hate.
At the same time, some analysts see the 2020s as an inflection point in history that could open a door not backward into the darkness of the mid-twentieth century but outward toward what the journalists John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge have described as a “more united, more interconnected” future. That is, if Putin’s invasion acts as an alarm bell and members of the Western alliance not only remain united behind Ukraine in defending democracy and the values of pluralism and freedom but also strengthen their economic and political ties to safely navigate a new era’s shifting geopolitics.
Indeed, the German chancellor, Olaf Scholz, declared in 2022 that with the Russian invasion of Ukraine the world was “facing a Zeitenwende: an epochal tectonic shift,” marking an end to the post–Cold War period in which Europe and the United States reaped the profits of “an exceptional phase of globalization” while taking for granted the transatlantic security architecture built more than half a century ago. Scholz condemned “Russia’s revanchist imperialism” and declared that it was “Germany’s historical responsibility” to ensure Putin “does not turn the clocks back.” He also announced that Germany would boost its military spending by €100 billion—strengthening its role in NATO and reversing its decades-long emphasis on diplomacy and détente over defense.
By the end of the first year of the war, Putin’s invasion had produced the opposite of what he wanted: Not only was the sorry state of his military exposed, but his senseless war had awakened a somnolent and divided West and strengthened NATO and the EU, which worried that the Russian invasion could mark a chilling return to what the historian Yuval Noah Harari calls “the law of the jungle,” in which “it again becomes normative for powerful countries to wolf down their weaker neighbours.” The usually fractious and bureaucracy-ridden EU moved with remarkable speed and unity to take collective action against Russia with sanctions and the delivery of weapons to Ukraine. Traditionally nonaligned Finland joined NATO in April of 2023, and Sweden is set to do the same, while Switzerland broke its long tradition of neutrality to join the EU in imposing sanctions on Russia. Europe even began a serious reevaluation of its long-term strategic goals, with countries vowing to end their dependence on Russian gas, oil, and coal and to work toward being energy self-sufficient—and greener, too.
Eras on the cusp of consequential change tend to exhibit the sorts of dissonances that Thomas S. Kuhn, in his groundbreaking book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions
(1962), identified as signs of the beginning stages of a paradigm shift. During such periods, old frameworks can no longer plausibly explain or accommodate new developments, and when those “anomalies” persist or multiply, a sense of crisis ensues, leading, eventually, to a revolution of sorts—the development of a new set of coordinates for mapping the world.
The multiplying uncertainties of today’s world, its “precarity” (to use a word that has migrated from academia to mainstream usage in recent years), stem from rapid economic and political shifts and the growing disruptive power of what the political scientist Ian Bremmer calls “rogue actors,” a small group of individuals who head up countries or institutions over which they exert virtually complete control and who make “decisions of profound geopolitical consequence.” Bremmer, who is president of the research and consulting firm Eurasia Group, says that such leaders are surrounded by yes-men and “don’t get great information, especially about the second and third order effects of the decisions they take”—which can result in arbitrary policy-making and, potentially, momentous mistakes. Among the “rogue actors” Bremmer names are Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, and Kim Jong Un, as well as business leaders like Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk, who control “immensely powerful global platforms that operate with some level of sovereignty outside of the power purview even of governments.”
Copyright © 2024 by Michiko Kakutani. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.